“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.”
As I was praying yesterday, I recalled these words from the prophet Isaiah. In the context of the passage, the prophet is encouraging Israel, giving the people hope as they face the reality of being exiled to Babylon. A foreign nation that would enslave and marginalize the people. A nation that promised to kill the Israelites, and leave both the temple and Jerusalem in ruins. It would prove to be a challenging time in Israel’s history, and probably left many people asking the question – where is God in all of this?
I ask myself the same question today. Where is God? Where is God as we struggle to make ends meet? Where is God as family and friends alike struggle with severe bouts of depression and mental illness (and so many others in our nation for that matter)? Where is God as people in this day and time are continually marginalized and oppressed simply because of the color of their skin? Where is God as people in nations like Syria die senselessly everyday as their dictator struggles to maintain power? Where is God when people who we saw just yesterday die from cancer, car accidents, war, gun violence and simple falls? Where is God? Where is God?
God’s words to Israel during the most difficult time in their history remain true today – he is here, right here with us. He is not some aloof God who delights in the suffering of his people and retreats to some far off place as we go through absolute hell. No, He willingly comes down, takes on human flesh and walks through the flames of life with us.
Picture the three Hebrew boys in Daniel 3 who refused to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s image. For their treason, they were given a choice: either worship the image or be thrown in the fiery furnace. To the king’s proposal, Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego reply – “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you’re an answer concerning this manner. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of the blazing fire and He will deliver us out of your hand, O King. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O King, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up” (Daniel 3.16 – 18, NASB).
Of course, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t like their response and promptly threw them into the furnace. But God was right there with them the whole time. He suffered with them. He walked with them. Literally. In verse 25 of the same passage, Nebuchadnezzar takes note that there appears to be one other person walking around in the flames who looks like the son of God.
Now picture Jesus. Born in a filthy, stinky manger. At the news of His arrival, Herod is threatened and wants to have Him killed right away. Unsuccessful in his quest for Jesus, He has all of the baby boys under the age of 2 years old in his vicinity killed. Jesus’ parents are on the run until Herod dies because they know he won’t give up search of this precious baby boy. By the time Jesus is an adult and starts His ministry, He remains a threat to the religious and social powers of his day, escaping stoning several times because the Jewish leaders want Him to be dead. Finally, they find success when one of Jesus’ own disciples agrees to sell Him out with a kiss. He is hung on a cross and crucified, taking on Himself the sins of the entire world – past, present and future.
But in His incarnation, He walked with us. He laid down pieces of his divinity so that He could be with us, to redeem us – often going without food, shelter, water, and sleep to show his solidarity with us. And He remains with His people every day. Every single day. And so when the prophet Isaiah foretells of His birth and calls Him ‘Emmanuel’ the name is fitting. Emmanuel, God with us.
When we pass through the waters, God is with us. When the storms of life rage and all hell breaks loose, God is with us. When we can’t pay the bills, are falsely accused, have loved ones who die, God is with us. When we struggle with depression and suicidal ideation, God remains with us. He is not going anywhere! He keeps His word and surrounds His people with His very presence. And that should give us hope even in the face of very real challenges because the presence of God changes things. Think about it – when Jesus showed up He changed the trajectory of the entire world. Surely He can change the outcome of the world we face every day.